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Paint Your Agon

Ancient Greek Athletics
By Stephen G. Miller
(Yale University Press, 288 pp., $35)
Click here to purchase the book.

Games for the Gods:
The Greek Athlete and the Olympic Spirit

By John H. Herrmann Jr. and Christine Kondoleon
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 201 pp., $45)
Click here to purchase the book.

In the waning days of the Roman Empire, an Athenian chronicler of Greek culture described a painting of the death of one of the greatest Olympic athletes, a certain Arrichion from Phigaleia, a small town in the mountains southwest of Arcadia. He had flourished more than six centuries earlier, but his fame was undimmed as a victor in the notorious pankration, a vicious "all-powerful" competition that combined boxing and wrestling in which nothing was forbidden except biting flesh and gouging eyes. When Arrichion returned after two victories to test his prowess a third time, his opponent grabbed him around the waist with one arm and undertook to break his neck with the other. Even as he was being strangled to death, Arrichion managed to throw his opponent so violently as to wrench the other man's left ankle from its socket and compel him to give up. Arrichion died, but in death he won his third victory.

Another of the renowned pankratiasts of classical Greece was so expert in bending back the fingers of his opponents, and sometimes breaking them, that he enjoyed an international reputation under the professional name of Sostratos Akrochersites, "the Fingerman." The morbid attraction that such heavy athletes held for at least some Greek spectators can be judged from a homoerotic poem in the Greek Anthology in which the poet celebrates the victory of a young boxer by kissing his bloodied face and declaring the taste of the blood sweeter than myrrh. 

Welcome to the Olympic Games of ancient Greece. Greek athletes knew no greater glory than success at Olympia or at one of the three additional "crown competitions" at Delphi, Nemea (north of Argos), and Isthmia (east of Corinth). To win the crown at all four was the pinnacle of glory. It entitled a victor to be called a periodonikes, a winner in the entire circuit, periodos, of Greek games. But the Olympics held pride of place before all the others, owing to its traditional foundation date in 776 B.C.E., with Zeus himself and his consort Hera as the presiding deities.   

The Olympics were the gold standard of ancient Greek athletics. They bore little resemblance to the modern Olympics, as two fine new volumes make plain. Stephen Miller surveys athletics in ancient Greece with the keen eye of a long-term excavator at Nemea and a teacher of the subject to generations of Berkeley undergraduates. John Herrmann and Christine Kondoleon offer a more limited treatment in the context of a timely exhibition, "Games for the Gods," at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Both books are well illustrated, as they need to be, but the Boston volume also includes a generous selection of photos of modern athletes doing their thing. Those images do not add much, and neither does the brief introduction from the sports commentator Bill Littlefield.  

The attempt to link modern athletes and ancient athletes inevitably runs up against major cultural differences. It is true that ancient athletics included boxing, wrestling, and foot racing, and a pentathlon that added the long jump, the discus throw, the javelin throw, wrestling, and the stadium race. But we must never lose sight of the popular savagery of the pankration. Even in more conventional events, antiquity showed a tolerance, or perhaps a taste, that is utterly alien to the modern world. A famous boxing match at Nemea ended as one fighter plunged his hand, with fingers extended, into the stomach of his opponent with such force that he tore out the man's intestines. The offender was reprimanded and expelled, not for the violence of his act but for breaking a last-minute procedural agreement whereby, after a long match, each had promised to deliver only more blow. By using all his fingers the delinquent was deemed to have delivered more than one blow--one with each finger.  

Ancient and modern athletics both have depended upon the skillful deployment of the human body, and both have responded to a system of prizes (athla) for excellence. To the extent that a fit, strong, and well-trained body is a prerequisite for any athlete, the Greeks of antiquity and the global competitors of today's Olympics have much in common. Stadium events, such as running, jumping, and discus-throwing, have classical analogues, but there will be no chariot races in Athens this summer. Nor will today's wrestlers grapple with each other in a standing position, as the ancients did, except when they were in the pankration, where they could freely draw blood. Boxing and wrestling matches had no time limits in antiquity, and most competitions had no prize other than victory itself. There were no silver or bronze medals. 

If anyone in Athens today were to travel back magically into ancient Greece for the Olympic games, the most conspicuous difference between now and then would undoubtedly be the appearance of the athletes. They were all male and they were all naked. Not even the Greeks seem to have known exactly how it happened that their athletes competed in the nude, but, as Thucydides and Herodotus were well aware, they were unlike peoples outside the Hellenic orbit who considered male nudity shameful. Legend had it that a certain Orsippus of Megara had dropped his loincloth at Olympia in the late eighth century B.C.E., but Thucydides and Plato both believed that athletics in the nude had begun not very long before their own time. Vase-painting as well as literary tradition leave us in no doubt that nudity was the norm, even if the odd loincloth shows up once in a while on vases made for export. 

The Greek custom of athletic nudity is reflected in our word gymnasium, derived from the Greek word gymnos, or naked. From his experience in the classroom Miller observes that the nudity "invariably makes modern students (particularly males) uncomfortable." Readers, like Miller's students, will find small consolation in his wry comment that the danger of injury is less than might appear because "the cremaster muscle forces the genitals to contract during exercise." To prepare for exercise, the Greek athlete sometimes tied up the foreskin of his penis (the Greeks did not practice circumcision) by a process that Miller and others erroneously call infibulation. No pin, or fibula, was involved, as it was later in Roman attempts to enforce sexual abstinence. The Greek procedure, which is shown on vases as dexterously accomplished with only one hand, was perhaps designed to heighten mobility or to prevent involuntary erections. The athlete would also anoint himself with olive oil before exercise. To clean himself afterward he applied a scraper, called a strigil, to remove the combined oil, sweat, and dust. No lockers, no showers.  

The sheer alienness of nude athletics seems to have links with Sparta. Near the beginning of his History, Thucydides observed that loincloths were normal at the Olympics of former times but that the Spartans had been the first to exercise without them and to anoint themselves with oil. The famously austere regime of Sparta would be compatible with such a far-reaching innovation, and it has sometimes been connected with the whole race of Dorian Greeks, to which the Spartans belonged. (The Athenians were Ionians.) The Dorians were reputed to have taken possession of the Peloponnese sometime after the Bronze Age. The Greeks tended to associate them with pederasty, as have modern historians. It was not for nothing that Wilde called his character Dorian Gray.  

The question naturally arises whether sexual tastes of this kind lay behind the Spartan innovation of nude athletics, since the education of young males at Sparta involved pederastic apprenticeship to older men as well as a bizarre marriage ritual in which the bride was obliged to dress up as a boy for her first night. Whatever the origins, nude athletics became normal throughout the competitions of Greece. It is impossible to say to what extent there was a prurient element in masculine exposure at the Greek crown games, but it is clear from literature and vase-painting that this element was present. Apart from a designated priestess, married women were forbidden to attend the Olympic games. Virgins were allowed, but no one reveals how their credentials were checked at the gate. The sacral character of all the great games of the so-called periodos should never be forgotten, since the sexuality and the cruelty of the events were dedicated to the glory of the gods. 

No writer from classical antiquity elaborated the divine ambience so magnificently as Pindar, the lyric genius of the fifth century B.C.E. In intricate meters and in grandiose language, he composed odes in honor of victors at all four of the periodos games. No one before or since has captured so eloquently the radiance of athletic success. "Hymns, lords of the lyre," wrote Pindar, "what god, what hero, what man shall I acclaim?" This famous line establishes a direct connection between athlete, hero, and god. The greatest of the contests was at Olympia: "If you wish to sing of contests, dear heart, look no farther than the warmth of the sun, the radiant star of the day in an empty heaven--we shall tell of no better contest than Olympia." It is in Pindar that we feel the splendor of Greek athletics, and escape from the innuendo and outright salaciousness of many other writers. 

Yet Pindar, too, perpetuates the sense of alienness, not only through his exultant polytheism but also through the myths that he invokes in celebration of his athletes. In the first Olympian ode he tells the founding legend of the games, a legend so fundamental that it was depicted on the east pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia. Pelops, the man who gave his name to the Peloponnese, sought the hand of Hippodameia, daughter of Oenomaus, who, as the local king, had decreed that a successful suitor must win against him in a chariot race. Pelops bribed the stable boy to replace the linchpin of Oenomaus's chariot with wax. When the wax melted, the king not only lost the race, he lost his life as well. This tale of cheating dominated Olympic mythology and its principal shrine, and no one, least of all Pindar, seemed to have found it embarrassing. 

The shadowy figure of Hippodameia at the Olympic games, the physical presence of the single priestess, and the virgins in the audience all serve to underscore yet another alien feature of Greek athletics: the marginal role of women. The Olympics and all the great games of Greece excluded women, although vase paintings sometimes show women as athletes. We know, for example, that the cult of Zeus's Hera at Olympia included a separate racing competition for women apart from the regular Olympics, and the myth of Atalanta's swiftness as a runner evidently encapsulates this tradition of female athletics. But the generally repressive attitude of the Greeks towards women kept them from any major participation in sport--with one conspicuous and significant exception.  

That exception, perhaps not surprisingly, is Sparta. If its brides were turned into transvestites at marriage, its girls were treated as the equals of boys in sport. Although they did not compete in the nude, they wore a tunic that exposed one breast while securing the other, making them into apparent Amazons. In Sparta, we find institutionalized pederasty combined with exceptionally rigorous physical training for women. Miller includes an excellent chapter on women in ancient Greek athletics and draws attention to Lycurgus, the legendary founder of the Spartan way of life (the so-called agoge), who, according to Plutarch, ordained exercise for women no less than for men. This evoked scorn from other Greeks. Aristophanes has some rude remarks in Lysistrata about Spartan women kicking their buttocks as they jumped up in exercise. But Plutarch tells the story of a Spartan woman who replied proudly to a taunt that only Spartan women rule men, "Only Spartan women bear men." Clearly, effective child-bearing was the excuse for the Lycurgan regime, but its audacity should not be minimized on that account.  

The Dorian ancestry of the Spartans probably explains, to some degree, the remarkable conjunction of homosexuality, feminism, and athletics. It also explains why the Spartans dominated the Olympic victor lists in the early decades of the games. But gradually the Olympics became the greatest interstate competition of the entire Hellenic world, and athletes streamed to the city every four years from the mainland cities and overseas colonies. Famously a truce was declared to bring all warfare to a halt throughout the duration of the games. The Olympics united for a time the fiercely independent city-states that characterized Greece in the archaic age.  

Athletic competition served as a symbol of the agonistic spirit of the time. This was, at any rate, the view of Jacob Burckhardt in Basel at the end of the nineteenth century, when he delivered his lectures on Greek cultural history. Burckhardt divided the history of early Greece down to the fifth century into two large frames, characterized by the terms "Heroic Man" and "Agonal Man," which a recent English translation has rendered by the anodyne "Heroic Age" and "Agonal Age." The heroes were the legendary warriors of the Homeric poems, who had the physical prowess of athletes and strove always to be the best. But theirs was not normally a world of competitive sport. The funeral games after the death of Patroclus in the Iliad anticipate (or conceivably reflect, depending upon the date of the poem) the role of athletics in a sacral context, but, as Burckhardt recognized, they do not evoke the international contests that begin with the Olympics.  

"Agonal man," from the Greek word agon, or contest, was competitive to the core of his being. As a member of a polis, or city, he participated in collective allegiance to that social unit, but as a Greek he represented his city in interstate athletics and thereby served to bring the independent poleis into a larger Hellenic nation. As Burckhardt observed, "About Olympia in particular there was a special sacredness for the whole nation, and the games there, which had been largely Peloponnesian at the start, slowly became the unique revelation of Greek unity in the true sense of the word, whether of those living in the motherland or in the colonies."  

The promotion of the agon as an integral part of Greek life led inevitably to the development of the gymnasium as a place for training athletes. It was here that adults trained the young, and it was here that pederasty prospered as a rite of passage. Miller is excellent on homosexuality in the gymnasium, and he comments perceptively on the social benefits of erotic mentorship in athletic contexts. Profligacy, prostitution, and relations between adult males were uncompromisingly condemned in this society, as can readily be seen from a law prescribing conduct in the gymnasium of Beroea in Macedonia, where male prostitutes together with slaves, drunks, and madmen were explicitly forbidden to strip down with young athletes. Still, as Miller rightly says, homosexuality among the students and trainers in the gymnasium was "accepted, common, and regulated by tacit rules of conduct."  

The agon and the gymnasium were integral to the life of all free males in archaic and classical Greece. In this respect, modern athletics and the modern Olympics are a world apart. Yet the celebration of victors in the ancient crown competitions and the glory that they acquired led eventually to the emergence of a class of professional athletes, such as we see today. With professionalism came bribery and cheating, and Miller chronicles some of the more sordid episodes. But no Greek could have forgotten that the Olympics themselves were founded upon bribery and cheating in the legend of Pelops. The potential for abuse in Greek athletics had been there from the start, even if the watchful gaze of the gods in whose honor the games were held--Zeus at Olympia or Apollo at Delphi--provided religious constraints that kept "agonal man" under control.  

Burckhardt ended the age of the agon with the coming of the fifth century. The Persian and Peloponnesian wars opened up a new era that was both troubled and magnificent. The Persian invasions united the Greeks, and the conflict between Athens and Sparta divided them. Yet out of all the turmoil of that century came literary and artistic achievements that have no equal. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Pheidias, the Parthenon eclipse the glory of Olympia in the historical record--but the games went on. Their truces continued by and large to be observed.  

But it is not the survival of the Greek athletic ideal amid the creative upheavals of the fifth century that is remarkable. It is its survival for some eight hundred years more. Miller gives a solid account of the changes that occurred over that long span of time, right through the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Some innovations--such as the development of the complicated device known as a hysplex for assuring a fair start for racing competitors--reflect the increasing sophistication of the organizers. But other devices served only to enhance the already bloody and savage aspect that had been there from the start. Boxers, who had originally worn a soft protective gauntlet called a himas to cover the forearm while exposing the fingers, began to wear in later centuries a hard himas that eventually included metal and covered the knuckles. This could inflict ghastly damage on an opponent, and it continued to be worn until the games came to end. At the same time, the crown competitions added events that would not, to modern eyes, appear to be athletic at all--competitions in music and declamation. The classical Olympics, to be sure, had offered prizes for heralds and trumpet-players, but this was principally to assure a successful public address system for the main events. Most cultural events belong to the later time.  

Romans found the nudity of Greek athletes as alien as we do, but they tolerated it, and certain philhellenes such as Nero and Hadrian actively espoused it. The bloodier events of the games, particularly the pankration, actually coincided with Roman tastes in sport. The introduction of the horrors of gladiatorial combat into the Greek world came directly from Italy. The altered context of the Olympics and other crown games meant that professional competitors came to dominate these festivals. The cities of Greece no longer contributed their young or competed in a panhellenic spirit, as in former times, even though Hadrian did his best to promote a new cultural organization called the Panhellenion. The inscriptions of the eastern Roman empire give ample proof of the numbers and the popularity of traveling athletes who went from festival to festival with the acclaim and notoriety of modern pop stars.  

Yet the ideal of Greek athletic contests did not die, and it continued to surprise non-Greeks. The satirist Lucian, who wrote in the second century of our era, imagined a dialogue between Solon and a Scythian called Anacharsis about the athletic training of boys. Solon describes the gymnasium, the various athletic events, the crowns awarded as prizes, and the nudity of athletes. Anacharsis is stupefied: "You put the boys naked in public, have them kicked and beaten, and then give apples and olive-leaves to the victors?" The same satirist, in a delicious piece of nonsense called the True History, includes an account of an island of the dead where the inhabitants are more than naked: they have no bodies at all, only shapes. There they celebrate contests called the Thanatousia, or games of the dead. The traditional events are all there--wrestling, boxing, racing, even poetry. But, says Lucian solemnly, "they have no pankration." Without bodies that event would have been a very tricky business.  

The Olympics ground to a halt under the impact of a Christian government in the late fourth century. By then the event had anyway become a shadow of its former self. It was dominated by professional stars and no longer served to unite the Greeks by their common traditions. It had become just another of many public entertainments, in which gladiators, tightrope walkers, mimes, and professional charioteers were much more to popular taste than nude athletes.  

Yet it is well to remember that the metaphors of athletics lived on in the hagiographical literature of the Christians themselves. Many of those who struggled against their earthly desires or met their deaths in martyrdom saw themselves, and were seen by their biographers, as spiritual athletes competing in heavenly competitions that often sound uncomfortably like the Thanatousia. The long evolution from Dorian pederasty to Christian martyrdom gives the history of Greek athletics a kaleidoscopic quality that can sometimes be more dazzling than clear. The Olympic spirit was not simple, and it was certainly not politically correct.

G.W. Bowersock is a member of the permanent faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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By G.W. Bowersock